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USF, Johns Hopkins All Children’s investigate why people might say no to a Covid vaccine

Margie Manning



Photo by Hyttalo Souza on Unsplash

Social media could hold important clues as to why some people would hesitate to get vaccinated for Covid-19, according to a University of South Florida researcher.

Heather O’Leary, an assistant professor of anthropology at USF’s St. Petersburg campus, is working with researchers from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital to mine those clues for information that would help doctors talk to families about vaccines.

O’Leary was one of a half-dozen speakers at the St. Petersburg Innovation District’s flagship State of Science event. The online program Tuesday night highlighted the intersections between science, technology, engineering and art.

O’Leary directs the EcoFem Lab at USF’s St. Petersburg campus, which she said uses an eco-feminist approach to advance science, addressing projects ranging from the economic impact of red tide to how Covid-19 has disrupted families’ well-being.

Heather O’Leary

She’s collaborating with the Johns Hopkins All Children’s program in pediatric health equity research to mine social media data, using ethnographic methods — or an approach that looks at people in their cultural setting —  to understand how different people interpret misinformation about potential Covid vaccines.

“We’re learning there are very distinct, diverse communities who are opposed to vaccinations for various reasons,” O’Leary said. “Something that might come out of our research once we complete the analysis phase is to engage with and listen to these disparate communities about what their specific concerns are for vaccinations and then to work with Johns Hopkins All Children’s pediatric health equities research team and other teams to try and make a decision tree, so that when physicians see families for their annual check-ups for vaccinations, they can really understand what concern they are expressing, where culturally and systemically that concern comes from, and how to specifically address it with culturally sensitive language that doesn’t alienate the person.”

A second prong of the research would be to develop a communications plan so that when people are searching the internet, they get data-driven accurate answers from the health care community that have cultural context to them.

“We’re blending big data, cultural data and also information that is cutting edge from the medical community and when we partner like that, we’re going to be able to address vaccine hesitancy,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary is working with an interdisciplinary faculty team at USF made up of Loni Hagen, Kim Walker, and Cecile Lengacher.

Other speakers discussed their own innovative approaches to their work.

• Mark Luther, director of the ocean monitoring and prediction lab in the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, said he is using vessel tracking data to estimate the risk of Covid-19 spread by ships’ crews entering Florida ports.

• Poynter Institute’s VidSpark social media storytelling initiative has helped WTSP Channel 10 in St. Petersburg launch digital-first programming to connect with young people who don’t rely on traditional media sources, said Ahsante Bean, editor and program manager of video strategy at Poynter.

• Physicians also are learning to use digital sources, such as YouTube, to share information with patients, said Dr. Prem Fort, a neonatologist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s. Fort and Luis Ahumada, director of predictive analytics and health informatics at the hospital, are collaborating on a project to help premature babies.

Janet Echelman, the creator of the aerial sculpture Bending Arc at the St. Pete Pier, keynoted the State of Science event, describing how she relies on engineering, software and other technologies to develop her work.

Bending Arc is the largest permanent commission of her work anywhere in the world.

“What’s most exciting to me is that people are gathering, that life is unfolding underneath Bending Arc,” Echelman said, adding that many of the Black Lives Matters marches have ended under the sculpture. “That seems meaningful to me, that this artwork was now a container or a holder for these emotions and also for this history that needs the support of a place to share these stories.”

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